The Elites

Silver is an elite, a guard of Neo-Babel. But when her parents go missing, she is forced Outside - to a new world of rebels and secrets - while she searches within herself for the strength to fight against all she has ever known...

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3. SILVER'S MISTAKE

The parade began at midday at a dock in Industrial District East, on the Outer Circle of the river. Since dawn, a flotilla of boats had gathered. Large commuter ferries sat patiently on the water, while floating shisha cafes – engulfed by clouds of sweetly smelling smoke – and delicate little plastiwood dhows jostled against their sides. River vendors squeezed their boats through the busy waterway, shouting out their wares.

    ‘Teh, sweetened with honey!’

    ‘Beer-soaked sausages, made with top-quality grade-three meat!’

    ‘Mango rice and coconut sauce, hot or cold!’

The streets along the dock were just as packed as the river. People from the nearby Limpets and residential condominiums haggled with merchants offering shishas and handmade trinkets out of grubby metal cases strapped to the sides of their bikes. Groups of men, already tipsy from drink, stumbled through the crowds. Their crude language drew faceless stares from the masked police patrolling the thoroughfares in silence. At the street edges, children ducked the railings to sit with their feet dangling over the water, daring each other to jump across to nearby boat decks.

For now, the atmosphere in the city was one of celebration, moods buoyed by the free food being handed out from the Council tugboats. Intoxicating cooking smells wafted across the streets, tempting the people who watched the proceedings from tiny balconies studding the walls of nearby condominiums. Music drifted out of open doors and windows – the city anthem, old pop songs from before the Great Fall – and from some rooms came chanting as their residents recited morning prayers. 

At one o’clock, the gongs rang. Slowly, stretching out like a lazy caterpillar, the procession went on its way. It moved through the city waterways until reaching the Council District four hours later. There, on a stage in Pantheon Square, stepped out the Council officials, resplendent in their grey tunics and silver robes which fluttered behind them in the growing wind.

And up in a building at the corner of the square’s southern edge, above a sea of heads bobbing to hear the president’s speech, a hunched figure edged out onto a balcony and raised its gun.   

 

Silver was dreaming of swimming; a clear sea, open and vast. Sunlight slanted into the water, dappling the blue with trembling puddles of light. Her long black hair fanned like seaweed from her head and she smiled in her sleep, enjoying the coolness of the water, the openness of the ocean. 

    Then the water began to churn. Huge currents came out of nowhere. They slammed into Silver, rolling her body to and fro. She twisted against them, trying to get out of their grip, and in her sleep she punched her arm straight into her bedpod shutters. 

    Silver snapped awake with a cry. She lay still, cradling her throbbing hand and staring at the metal that encased her bedpod. The sea’s rumbling from her dream lingered, and as her brain began to wake, she realised it was not just an echo from her dream but that there was actually a muffled rumble coming from somewhere nearby. 

She slid open the shutters and stepped out of her bedpod. Sunshine poured into the bedroom from the plastiglass outer wall, casting a slice of shadow across the empty bedpod beside her own, the shutter half open. Strange, Silver thought as she ducked into the bathroom to make sure Ember wasn’t in there; she hadn’t forgotten her lesson yesterday. I’m sure I was meant to go with Ember for training today. 

She wandered over to the glass wall, yawning and stretching her arms above her head. Her eyes were adjusting to the light, and she could now see clearly the broad avenue of Noda Parkway stretched out below. An elegant strip of trees ran down its centre, city flags billowing from light posts. As one of the main streets in the Council District, Noda Parkway was usually fairly busy, but today it was packed with people, a sea of rippling heads bobbing by. 

For a moment, Silver couldn’t understand why there were so many people. Then, with a sickening jolt, she remembered – 

The parade.

‘Oh gods!’ she groaned. ‘Oh gods! Oh no, no, no, no!’ 

Still cursing, Silver stumbled into the bathroom, where she undressed, popped a mouthwash tablet between her teeth, and splashed her face with water. Back in the bedroom, she pulled on her Elite uniform – black jumpsuit, flexivinyl boots and gloves, her comms and med cuffs, her stungun – before hurtling out of the room, down the corridor and onto the floor’s landing platform at the hollow centre of the Stacks. 

No one was around. Silver took a plastiglass lift down to the atrium, tying her hair into a ponytail as it went. The pathways and prayer gantries lining the centre of the Stacks like a vertical maze were empty. She checked her comms cuff and groaned again; it was seven minutes past five. Tanaka’s speech was due to begin in just twenty-three minutes, which meant she should have been at Hemmingway House over an hour ago. 

Silver squeezed her hands into fists. How could she have let herself be so late on the biggest assignment she had ever been given? Especially after what Tanaka had said to her last night. It must have been all the sake she’d drunk at the banquet. 

Thanks for waking me, Ember, Silver thought sarcastically, scowling. I can always count on you.

 

By the time the gongs were sounding, signalling the start of Tanaka’s speech, Silver had made it to Hemmingway House. It was a squat, ten-storey building on the southern edge of Pantheon Square, built with the same granite-blend material as most of the buildings in the Council District. Its polished surface shone in the sun. Two masked policemen stood outside the building, and Silver threw them an apologetic look, touching her hand to the panel beside the door.

As she slipped inside, she heard one of the policemen grumble under his breath, ‘Stupid Red – they can’t do anything right.’ 

A statement like this would have usually hurt her, but today she was in such a rush she barely noticed. Besides, she’d not forgotten the promise she’d made last night. She was determined to be the best Elite at the parade today for Tanaka, Red or not.  

    Silver took an elevator to the roof. As soon as the doors opened, wind hit her. It buffeted her small frame as she ran bent over to the northern edge, her ponytail flapping wildly about her face, her eyes watering. She reached the parapet lining the edge of the roof and knelt down, taking her lookout position, just as Tanaka began to speak. 

‘Welcome, dear citizens, to our annual parade. A celebration of our fine city, Neo-Babel!’ 

The square erupted into cheers. Silver grinned, feeling a flush of excitement at the energy of the crowd. Down below, Pantheon Square was packed. Pockets of colour from city flags flecked the crowd, and there were vendors selling balloons with the faces of popular Council officials on them. Tanaka’s was there, and even Senior Surrey’s, who was the Council’s Head of Security, as well as being in charge of the Elites. 

The real Council members were on the stage at the opposite end of the square. Tanaka stood at the front. His hair was hidden beneath the broken-winged cap he wore. As he looked round at the crowd, his silver robe fluttered in the breeze. A dozen or so senior Council members sat behind him, and behind them was a row of masked police, guns resting against their chests. 

‘Once, our great city was just the seed of an idea,’ Tanaka began, his voice was slightly fuzzy through the small microphone strapped to the collar of his tunic. ‘A seed born from the riots that spread through the three great continents – the Mainland, Afrika and the Red Nations. A seed that was planted in the late twenty-fifth century, when what was left of the Global Council agreed upon the build of a city in the deserted lands of the former Eastern Europe. They dreamt of a place where civilisation could continue and flourish, where the disastrous effects of the sea-level rises and economic collapse and cultural dilution could be forgotten. A fresh start made.’ He raised his arms, his voice growing louder. ‘A city where history could be outrun, and in time, overcome. A city of hope, of sustainability, of unity. A city, dear citizens, named Neo-Babel!’ 

The cheers of the crowds drowned Tanaka’s voice. The atmosphere of Pantheon Square was electric, as though their leader’s words were charged with some fantastic energy that danced in the air, slipping into people’s veins. Even alone on the rooftop, Silver was getting caught up in the speech, forgetting her job as lookout. 

‘Yes,’ Tanaka said, dropping his arms. ‘Neo-Babel was born. But then came the Great Fall.’ 

The crowd hushed, listening eagerly. 

‘We were a young city, not yet equipped to survive alone, and the wars were savage. We saw the deaths on our tablet screens – whole cities and countries obliterated under the touch of nuclear weapons. We watched as the oil ran out and the planes came down. We hoped that would mark the end of it, but we all saw with horrified eyes as countries continued to fight without their aerial armies, using bioweapons and foot soldiers instead.’ 

 Tanaka paused, and the crowd was so quiet in its eagerness to hear their president’s words that Silver thought she heard a click from somewhere nearby. She turned, but the rooftop was empty. 

‘But though the Great Fall destroyed the rest of the world,’ continued Tanaka, his hands in fists at his sides, ‘it only made Neo-Babel stronger! We lived up to our motto – A Place for Everyone – and not only the Council but every single citizen worked hard to ensure that our city remained fair and just. To this very day, we strive to maintain our legacy as a city of hope, of sustainability, of unity – the legacy our Global Council fathers envisioned for us.’ His voice grew suddenly low, dangerous. ‘Yet despite this, there are those that challenge our system. There are those that fight against us, disrupting the routine that has kept us alive and well, the routine that has supported us all these years. And it is my duty as our city’s leader to tell those individuals that this is the year they are stopped.’   

There was a tense silence now at the turn Tanaka’s speech had taken, but Silver wasn’t listening any more. She was sure of what she’d heard a minute before; it had been a metallic click. Feeling unsettled, quietly, lightly, she crouched and skirted the perimeter of the rooftop. Nothing. She went back to her original position, paused for a second, thinking, then leant forward over the parapet, gripping the edge tightly, and saw – 

A man knelt on the balcony below, clutching a gun aimed straight at the stage. 

Silver swung back behind the parapet, stifling a gasp. Oh gods, oh gods! she thought desperately. An assassin, here in my lookout zone, and I was late, and I didn’t find him, and now he’s got a gun pointed at Tanaka!

She shook her head, pushing her thoughts away; it was no time to panic. She ran a little way along the parapet then peered back over. Silver thought about calling Ember on her comms cuff, but the man was just twelve feet away with a gun in his hand. Any second now he could shoot. There was no time. And, though she didn’t want to admit it, there was the thought of how catching the assassin alone would prove to everyone – to Ember, to Senior Surrey, even to Tanaka – that she was every bit an Elite as the others.

I can do this, thought Silver, nodding to herself. She took out her stungun. A deep, slow breath. Then – 

She flipped herself over the parapet. Her legs jarred as she landed on the balcony below. The man swung round at the noise, his arm arcing towards her with the gun, but he didn’t shoot, and Silver charged at him with her stungun. 

He danced out of its range. In the second it took for the stungun to recharge, the man lunged – his face a blur of stubble and bright brown eyes – and wrestled the stungun out of her hand, pushing her to the floor. She jumped up, ready to fight with her fists, but the man was stepping back from her, holding out his hands. 

‘Silver!’ he said, in a low, urgent voice. ‘Please understand. I have to do this!’ 

But Silver didn’t understand. How did he know her name? 

For the first time since she’d landed on the balcony, she had time to take in his appearance. The man was a Red, like her. He had a weather-beaten face, skin darkened by the sun and etched with lines and scars. There was a shadow of stubble on the lower half of his face, and more shadows under his small eyes, as though he hadn’t slept in days. He wore simple, factory-worker clothes; khaki-coloured shirt, trousers and boots. He looked just like any other worker in the Industrial District, but there was something about his eyes that drew Silver’s attention. She saw flecks of gold in them and felt a strange stirring of memories. 

‘I have to do this,’ the man repeated, stepping towards her. His eyes were wide, pleading. Silver could smell shisha smoke on his clothes, and, beneath it, a scent she almost recognised. A scent that somehow seemed familiar. They looked at each other for a moment and she could feel the man’s name on the edge of her tongue, curling and solidifying into – 

Then the man darted forward and pushed her down and crouched back in position at the balcony ledge, raising his gun, and Silver jumped up, running to him just as he pulled the trigger. 

The sound shocked her into stillness. She jerked to a halt at the edge of the balcony, but she could still see what had happened, what was happening, and a single thought: No.

It was as though the bullet froze the second it hit Tanaka’s forehead. There was no explosion, no spilling of brains. Even his eyes stayed open, gazing blankly in front of him at the horrified crowd. As Silver watched, too stunned to move, the ghostly half-smile on his face seemed to twist into a snarl. Then his head disappeared in a cloud of red. The smell of wet metal hit her like a wall, and the screaming began.

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